Once the dream houses

legacy of Tamil Nadu

Once the dream houses

It was during my travels to Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu that I remembered the typical Chettinad houses, said to be a symbol of heritage of the Chettiar community. Having heard and read about the uniqueness of these palatial residences, I made a detour towards Karaikudi, a small but busy town.

On the suggestion of a local shopkeeper I made it to the nearby village of Kanadukathan, where the cream of the culture of these houses could be experienced. Kanadukathan is a dry, desolate village that burns under the punishing sun throughout the year. Scanty rainfall and the salt-laden winds from the nearby coast of Bay of Bengal have only added to the harsh climate of the place. It’s not just Kanadukathan. About 70-odd villages in the vicinity that together comprise the Chettinad region are prone to drought-like situations all year long.

But then, the question arises as to how such gracious buildings have come upon such a stark place. That is where the story unfolds.

An adventurous lot

The fact that the area was barren and no agricultural activity could be pursued generated other options of livelihood. Around a century ago, the Chettiars, the dominant community of the region, dreamt of finding better prospects elsewhere, particularly in the neighbouring countries. They transformed themselves into adventurous seafarers and crossed the oceans to other lands. Some drifted to Burma while others sailed to Sri Lanka; some ventured as far as Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Being gifted with a sound business acumen, they tried their hand at moneylending and financing small trades. The initial success encouraged them to put in more and more of their money and efforts. Over a period of years, many had become successful bankers and financiers. In fact, Chettiars are often referred to as the pioneers of mercantile banking. As years rolled by, they also earned their rewards for the efforts and became wealthier. The overflowing money at their disposal pushed them back to the homeland, and they began building mansions using their aesthetic sense.

Each one constructed a bungalow that was more sophisticated than the other —in a healthy competition of sorts. They were huge too, with each house spanning the length of a street, sometimes. The houses, much like fortresses, were called ‘nattukottai’, meaning ‘fort of the land’, which is why the community has earned the name Nattukkottai Chettiars.

Each house has anywhere from 40 to 50 rooms, spread over two or three storeys. With no dearth of space, they were constructed elaborately on a large scale. The number of such houses began to rise. It seems at one time there were nearly 25,000 houses across 96 villages in the Chettinad belt.

The Chettiars thrived in their business and constantly brought home fortunes. All was going well till the middle of the century, when their earning curve ebbed. The effect of World War II saw to it that the local governments became self-reliant and discouraged foreign businessmen. Slowly the Chettiars began to come back to their native land. Some of them suffered financial setbacks as the governments which had taken control of their investments and infrastructure did not compensate.

Seeing the doom in the business, almost all made it back to India. But, living off the earned fortunes would not last long. This forced many of them to relocate to bigger cities in the country, and even abroad. Most of these houses were vacated and the owners visited them once in a while, when there was a wedding or festival.

This exodus then has now resulted in the whole town being dotted with bungalows with just one or two caretakers. However, the artistic ambience and the cultural uniqueness of these houses are intact. They are the epitome of Chettiars’ taste for lavish living. As such, Kanadukathan and other villages of Chettinad have become heritage destinations, inviting tourists, artists and architects. A few houses have been transformed into heritage hotels. Narayana Vilas is one such house-turned-hotel where I began discovering the intricacies of this culture.

After a hot cup of authentic filtered brew, I walked around the premises — along the spacious halls with stained glass windows and traditional furniture. The front portion of the hotel has been converted into a museum that houses the utensils, cutlery and other artefacts used in the Chettinad homes, complete with a bullock cart. I was guided first to the Chettinad Palace that is in the centre of the town.

An enormous structure in super-white, spanning from one end of the street to the other, this was the abode of the Raja of Chettinad. Designed and constructed by Dr Annamalai Chettiar, founder of Indian Bank and Annamalai University, this is popularly known as ‘Raja House’. Its porch with a gold-coloured canopy, embellished with designs, leads to a long corridor with sleek, coloured pillars, beyond which are a series of courtyards and halls that served occasions like marriages and ceremonies.

Generally, every house is built on more or less a similar plan. The next house I visited had a few steps on the porch with an image of a deity in the niche above it. The caretaker took me around the house. The shapely wooden pillars that lined the corridor were made of Burma teak, she said. The huge door leading to the hall was massive like that of a temple door, with carvings of images on its panel. The wall panel of gods in silver filigree was exquisite.

With an open roof, the naturally well-lit courtyard was spacious. This is where the womenfolk attended to chores. The floor was decorated with colourful tiles. During their travels far and wide, the Chettiars brought various materials from different countries — marble from Italy, crockery from England, glass from Belgium, and so on. This truly authenticates their taste for multicultural aspects in building their homes.

Some houses were constructed also using ingredients like lime, mortar, powdered shells and the yolk of eggs so that the finishing would be smooth and the sheen would last for years. The walls are lofty with a high ceiling and ornamental chandeliers that would spectacularly light up the interiors. The household being fairly large, the kitchen itself resembled that of a hotel with a series of stoves. The upper floor usually accommodated rooms that came attached to wide balconies and decorative balustrades.

Careful construction

The caretaker said almost all the houses were built about four metres above the ground. Years ago, after a tidal wave from the coast hit the town, the residents were marooned while their men were away on business. That is also why, she said, each hall or room is separated from the other by a foot-high barrier so that the collected water does not flow into other spaces.

Apart from the immensity of the buildings, the glazed tiles with animals and fine patterns, elegant cosy furniture, swing in the lounge, period telephone, radio, typewriter and the flowery chandelier, all reflected the opulence and artistic sense of the Chettiars. But today, these vacant palatial homes stand as witnesses to the glory of a bygone era.

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